How to Feed Your Sourdough Starter: Tips for Care

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a loaf of sourdough bread on a plate
Author Name: Lucas Cook
Date: Sunday March 3, 2024

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Who isn’t learning about sourdough these days? This ancient bread has been a staple for many years, but the pandemic renewed many people’s interest in baking it themselves. Once your social media algorithm knows you’re interested in sourdough, your feed is full of it, because there’s a lot of science behind getting the perfect loaf. No more mixing some yeast with some water and flour to get bread — now, you need to learn how to feed a sourdough starter.

What Is a Starter? How This Bread Levener Works

A sourdough starter is a mixture of water and flour that’s allowed to ferment, fostering natural yeast and bacteria. Those components digest the simple sugars in flour to create carbon dioxide that makes the dough rise and acids that provide the typical sourdough flavor.

Because of this digestion, sourdough often has less gluten than typical breads, so those with gluten sensitivities can process it easier. You could even make your starter with rye flour rather than white to boost its benefits. Either way, those with celiac disease or gluten allergies will unfortunately have to sit this one out — it doesn’t eliminate enough of the protein to render it safe.

If flour naturally has some yeast in it, why do you need to add more to make bread? There just isn’t enough occurring in the grain for it to rise itself, so it needs some extra help. Yeast naturally occurs everywhere, including in the air and on your hands. As you mix and feed the starter, the yeast gets the opportunity to proliferate, guaranteeing you delicious bread.

How to Feed Sourdough Starters

Luckily, the ingredients are the easy part — all you need is flour and water, plus a container for the starter. If you’re storing it at room temperature, start by stirring the starter until any liquid at the top has reincorporated. Put ½ cup — or 113 grams — of the starter in a mixing bowl and discard the rest. Then, add the same weights of flour and water to the bowl — or 1 cup and ½ cup, respectively.

Mix the components in the bowl until they combine and add the resulting paste back into wherever you keep your starter. From here, you’ll repeat the feeding every 12 hours. If you’d like to space out the feedings a bit more, learn how to feed sourdough starters for the fridge instead.

The steps are much the same — keep ½ cup of starter, discard the rest, add flour and water, and mix until smooth. However, now you’re going to let the mixture sit at room temperature for around 2 hours to give the yeast time to get active. When that time’s up, you can put the refreshed starter back into its container and the fridge, repeating the steps once a week.

When it’s time to bake, feed your starter with the same ratio every 12 hours until it doubles or triples in size within 6–8 hours. Ensure there’s at least ½ cup left to keep your colony going and use as much as you need for the recipe. To put it back in the fridge, give it the same feeding, leave it on the counter for 2 hours and return it to cold storage.

Do You Have to Discard Sourdough Starter When You Feed It?

Many people start baking their own sourdough because they want to lessen their waste, so it’s surprising that part of the process is throwing starter away. However, it is part of starter maintenance, as it will grow in excess if you don’t get rid of some of it. Discarding and feeding the starter helps refresh it to its optimal baking state, ensuring a thriving colony of bacteria and yeast.

Some people throw the discard away or loosen it up with water so it goes down the drain, but you can also make use of it. See if any of your friends, family or neighbors would like a bit of their own starter. Otherwise, you can use it in your compost pile or in one of many discard recipes.

How Long Can a Sourdough Starter Go Without Feeding?

Thankfully, your starter is pretty resilient — it can go about a year in the fridge unfed before you might have to consider starting over. As long as it hasn’t hardened into a block and starts bubbling after around four feedings — bubbles are signs of fermentation, meaning the colony is still alive — it’s still good to bake with.

If you’ve left your starter at the back of the fridge for a very long time, you might be alarmed by the dark gray liquid sitting on top. However, this is just hooch — a perfectly normal byproduct of a hungry starter. The only time you have to worry is if you see colors like orange or pink. Those mean mold, indicating you have to restart your colony entirely. Anything outside of the light beige of the starter and the occasional dark hooch is a red flag.

How to Feed a Sourdough Starter When You Haven’t in Months

Starters take a bit of work to maintain and not everybody wants to do it forever. When you’re craving a sourdough loaf after more than a few months of not feeding your starter, mix ½ cup starter, and 56g each of warm water and flour. Place the mixture in a jar with two rubber bands — one where the starter begins and another where it should rise to to double in size.

You might see the starter bubbling in the same day if it’s warm out, but the process goes much slower when it’s cold. It can take a few feedings to wake the yeast and bacteria back up — especially depending on how long it’s been since it’s been fed — so don’t worry if it’s not bubbling yet.

Wait until the start is reliably doubling in size after 6–8 hours before you start baking with it again. It’s just had a long sleep, so it needs a bit of time before it’s at full strength again.

Feeding Your Sourdough Starter for Gorgeous Loaves

Humans figured out how to make sourdough thousands of years ago without technology, so have faith that you can learn how to feed your sourdough starter. The steps are easy, but keeping up with the feedings can be a juggle for beginners. You’re well on your way to baking beautiful loaves of bread with this handy guide.

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